George Washington Carver

The Great American Agriculturalist, Much More Than Peanuts

George Washington Carver writing
George Washington Carver, later years

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George Washington Carver. While most associate him with peanuts, in the agricultural world Mr. Carver is most famous for the re-invention of an Indigenous American farming technique by which the peanut was used. Filled with essential nutrients, the peanut was used to replenish the soil of America's cash crops and, thanks to Mr. Carver's passion, to replenish human bodies as a super legume.

Origins of Greatness

Although the exact year is unknown, it is thought that Mr. Carver was born in Missouri between 1861-1864. His mother was kidnapped by the KKK when he was an infant and he remained on the plantation even after slavery legally ended in 1865. Mr. Carver left when he was around 12 years old to pursue formal education.

Photo Portrait of George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver.

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He attended art school, and later became the first African American student to attend and graduate from what is now Iowa State University. He went on to become the head of the agriculture department at Tuskeegee University where he taught and conducted research, building the department’s reputation as a robust research facility for over 47 years.

Early American Agriculture

Until the 20th century, agriculture was the most important industry in America. The majority of early American exports were agricultural products that were shipped as raw materials to be processed in other countries, thereby building America and its economy.

a farmer planting their land
Planting on an American farm.

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Agriculture was so important to the economy that about 40% of Americans worked on farms around 1900 and 60% lived in rural areas. There were between 6-7 million farms in the US from 1910-1940, so if you didn’t work on a farm, you likely had a family farm that sustained you and your loved ones and everyone lived close enough to it to help maintain the land.

Cash Crops & Single-Crop Farming

Cash Crops (l to r) - sugar cane, cotton, tobacco
Cash Crops (l to r) - sugar cane, cotton, tobacco.

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There were three main cash crops that fueled the rapid growth of the country, cotton, sugarcane, and tobacco. Land owners usually grew one of these crops again and again on their land, which is called single-crop farming.

Single-crop farming focuses all of the farmer's energy, and that of the land on a single cash crop, which will take what it needs from the land to grow year after year. However, this method proved detrimental to the soil and once fertile land became dry and arid until it could no longer support new crops planted.

Indigenous American Origins

The peanut's circuitous journey to North America began in South America, Peru or Brazil. Explorers brought the plant to Spain where traders and more explorers spread them to Asia and Africa. The peanut plant then returned to North America by way of enslaved Africans during the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.

peanut farmers harvesting their crops
Peanut farmers.

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It was Mr. Carver who brought back a farming practice that had been used by Indigenous Americans for centuries before settlers arrived, Companion Farming. The Indigenous Americans knew that planting legumes (beans, peas, lentils) kept the soil healthy and fertile. This is because legumes draw nitrogen from the atmosphere and transmit it to the soil to replenish the nitrogen stripped away by other crops.

Crop Rotation

farmers tilling their land
farmers tilling their land.

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Improving the soil meant improving the lives of sharecroppers so Mr. Carver published research and spoke passionately around the country about rotating cash crops with legumes – primarily peanuts and soybeans – to replenish the soil after each harvest.

The Power of The Peanut

peanuts in and out of the shell
peanuts, shelled and unshelled.

The Spruce Eats

At the time there was not much of a market for peanuts, so Mr. Carver set out to create one. He wrote books on the commercial and nutritional value of peanuts, to convince farmers to plant them and people to buy them. They are an excellent source of protein and other nutrients that many during the time needed to supplement in their diets. As part of his research, Mr. Carver also developed and published a volume containing over 100 peanut recipes for human consumption.

jar of peanut butter
Hain peanut butter.

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These recipes included breads, cakes, soups, loaves, oil, and others. He also discovered commercial and medicinal uses for peanuts to create a larger market, but his research for culinary uses has spurred the growth of this humble legume into an all-time high per capita consumption of 7.9 pounds.

full bleed image of peanut butter spread with peaks
Homemade Peanut Butter.

Cara Cormack for The Spruce Eats

His Legacy Continues

George Washington Carver in the laboratory
George Washington Carver.

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Mr. Carver's dedicated his life to improving the conditions of poor Black sharecroppers who were left after slavery to tend this arid land, their fortunes being directly tied to how much they could grow.

It is safe to say that Mr. Carver is the original Mr. Peanut, having convinced Presidents, industrial leaders, and farmers of the many ways the power of this legume could be harnessed to nourish not only the people of this country, but its land.